Busy summer for News Watch content team
Greetings to all members of the South Dakota News Watch First Amendment Society. Here is a brief look at what the News Watch content team has been up to and a deeper look at how a statewide poll comes together.
Leading conversations in South Dakota
The News Watch content team published several articles in July and August that not only covered important news but also drove forward critical conversations in our state.
Stu’s article on dueling Medicaid expansion ballot measures led one group to withdraw its proposal after reading about potential voter confusion highlighted by News Watch. Stu also provided the public with important information on the new, highly contagious BA.5 variant of COVID-19. Bart produced a two-part package on how fraud and weak government oversight are eroding the integrity of the rapidly expanding organic food market in South Dakota and across the country. That package featured strong photography and videography from the fields of an organic farm near Madison. Bart also examined how — and why — church attendance and affiliation are falling fast in the state. Intern Kylie focused on pocketbook issues during the summer, revealing how inflation was hurting low-income residents the most and how rising diesel prices were putting particular hardship on farmers and truckers.
Content staffers Bart and Stu utilized the strong reporting over the past two months to make appearances on South Dakota Public Broadcasting, and Stu also appeared remotely on KOTA TV in Rapid City.
Exciting fall ahead
The content team is staying busy to bring readers important coverage in the coming fall months. Kylie is working on her final story about the “brand drain” in which recent college graduations are fleeing South Dakota for what they perceive to be greener, more accepting pastures. In late August, the team was rolling out coverage of the most recent South Dakota Matters poll, commissioned by News Watch in conjunction with the Chiesman Center for Democracy at USD. News Watch poll questions focused on abortion, marijuana legislation and gun control. The team also has access to questions posed by USD, including an in-depth examination of the decline of civility in society in South Dakota.
Other ideas are still taking shape, but Bart plans to provide in-depth reporting on the massive expansion of agricultural processing facilities in South Dakota, including the proposed park plant in Sioux Falls and a beef plant proposed for Rapid City. Stu is also exploring a piece on the aspirations of Gov. Kristi Noem, which will be a challenging, but potentially fruitful endeavor.
Pulling back the curtain on a poll
In late July, News Watch and USD commissioned our third statewide poll on hot topics across the state. Here’s a brief look at how that time-consuming, but highly valuable process works:
- In early June, Bart and USD political science professor Shane Nordyke conducted a lengthy conversation to kick off the planning for the poll. Step 1 was to reach out to officials from Mason-Dixon Polling in Florida, which conducts the polling effort, and provide them a general timeline of the poll and determine when it could be conducted expeditiously within their schedule and ours. News Watch and USD split the cost of the poll.
- Once a timeline was put in place, Bart and Shane, and then Bart and Stu, began discussions of potential topics of interest for the poll, looking for issues where statewide opinion is both timely and relevant.
- Bart and Stu then met in late June with the News Watch Content Committee, a group of about 10 journalists from around the state who connect virtually each month to discuss story ideas and share news of importance in their local communities. Committee members were highly valuable in determining which topics to explore and also in forming story ideas that might arise from the poll results.
- Once general topics are selected, the hardest part of poll planning begins: crafting the actual questions. A good poll question is easy for respondents to understand, can be asked in a quick and unambiguous way, and leads as directly as possible to quantifiable results that directly address the topics we want to explore. That process required two phone calls and about a dozen emails back and forth among Bart, Shane and Brad, the contact at Mason-Dixon. More questions means more time for poll workers to be on the phone, which equates to higher costs. Our budget allowed for about 20 total questions to be asked in four topic areas, which required some back-and-forth with Mason-Dixon and ultimately some culling of questions that were too vague or too wordy.
- On July 9, we finalized our questions and sent them to Brad at Mason-Dixon, who had further input and suggestions on how to streamline the questions (and asked us to cut a few due to time constraints.) A few days later, Brad sent back the final questions, and Bart and Shane provided approval.
- Over four days, July 19-22, 2022, Mason-Dixon poll workers called hundreds of South Dakotas in order to get 500 respondents who had to be registered voters. Chosen randomly through voter registration records, respondents were contacted in all South Dakota counties with a balance by gender, age and political party that matches voter registration data.
- A week later, Bart and Shane received the full poll results, which were packaged in a 24-page document, and details on how the poll was conducted and margin of error. The poll results required significant examination and interpretation. Bart and Shane have developed a process in which they both review the poll results separately, make notes on their findings and impressions, then get together for an extensive discussion to consider which questions provided newsworthy results and also to determine which questions obtained statistical significance (Stu joined us for this discussion on the latest poll.)
- Bart and Stu then made plans on how to cover the poll results — the critical story choice and planning process — which later kicked off the reporting process. The reporters seek out and interview experts and others on the front lines of the topics addressed to help provide context and meaning to the poll results. One unique, and time-consuming, part of poll reporting is that the reporters must share the poll results with sources prior to interviews (with a promise of not sharing proprietary data prior to publication.) This important step gives the source time to understand, evaluate and interpret the poll results prior to the interview, which makes for much better, most informed conversations and interviews. After articles are written, edited (and sometimes re-written and re-edited), we publish the stories on the News Watch website, social media and on media partner platforms across the state.
- Prior to that, however, Bart reached out to Matt Jensen Marketing and provided them with poll results and text that could be crafted into easy-to-read, meaningful and professional looking charts that will be published with the articles. This process required about a half-dozen emails back and forth until the final design was complete because both sides of the partnership realize the importance of getting things right (we have long relied on the talents of the Jensen team to aid in out storytelling and reporting efforts.)
- We then roll out the articles, by posting them on our website and social media, by sending them to our subscribers, and by sharing the material with all other media for use at no cost. By monitoring metrics, we are able to see with clarity and immediacy the immense value in our polling efforts that more than justify the expense and effort. Our first article from this latest poll — showing that a majority of registered voters do not support a full ban on abortion and also support a statewide referendum to make future laws on the procedure — was generating an immense audience on our website and on Facebook and Twitter, and both SDPB and KOTA TV in Rapid City had arranged air time for Stu to discussion the poll results and his subsequent reporting. We expect traditional media partners with also make great use of the material in the coming days.
- Within the content team, we see the polls as a way to expand the important role News Watch plays in convening vigorous public discussions on important topics, but also as a way to generate valid, highly valuable insight on what South Dakotans are really thinking, which typically is not readily available in our state. In addition, the polls ultimately lead to publication of timely, important, and interesting content — without a doubt a top priority of South Dakota News Watch.
Feel free to reach out
Members of the News Watch content team pride ourselves on our availability and responsiveness to readers, including our valued First Amendment Society members. You should all feel free to write to myself or Stu Whitney at anytime with comments, suggestions or story ideas. We can be reached at Bart.Pfankuch@SDNewsWatch.org and Stu.Whitney@SDNewsWatch.org.
From our team to you…have a fruitful and fun fall season and keep watching for more strong journalism to come.
Bart Pfankuch, Content Director
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